Ray of Sunshine in Foreboding Asia-Pacific

Ray of Sunshine in Foreboding Asia-Pacific

The dramatic impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye creates an unexpected political opening to avert the foreboding cycle of confrontation in the region. The sudden change in political fortunes could see the return of an erstwhile Sunshine Policy, which was once a harbinger of peaceful relations between North and South Korea, and for the wider region.

Opponents of the pro-US and rightwing Park are riding high on the outpouring of public anger at the ruling conservative party (known as the Liberal party). For several months, public protests had demanded Park’s ouster due to corruption scandals involving big business and influence-peddling by unelected family friends of the president.

The leftwing opposition, the Democratic party, is now propelled by this popular surge against the ruling administration. A return to political office for the Democrats would also entail a revival of the so-called Sunshine Policy of past South Korean presidents, which promoted a peaceful reunification between the former foes of North and South.

This surprise development comes amid a renewed round of grim military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

This week, within days of the US announcing the installation of a new missile system in South Korea, followed by both China and Russia decrying the danger of a new arms race, then President Park was unceremoniously kicked out of office. The 65-year-old Park is now facing criminal prosecution over corruption charges after the country’s Constitutional Court this week ruled that an earlier parliamentary vote calling for her impeachment should be upheld.

Park’s impeachment – the first time a South Korean leader has been legally forced out of office – has paved the way for presidential elections within 60 days.

Recent polls show that veteran opposition leader Moon Jae-in would easily win the next election. The human rights lawyer has a respected background in progressive, leftwing politics. He was formerly involved in student protests during the 1970s against the then US-backed military dictatorships that previously ruled South Korea before the advent of electoral politics. Ironically, one of the most ruthless dictators back then was Park Chung-hee (1963-79), father of the ousted president.

The 64-year-old Moon Jae-in has long been an advocate of dialogue and normalization of regional relations with North Korea and China. In particular, he has tapped into the recent public groundswell that opposes the new American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system.

Thus the forthcoming presidential election in South Korea, to be held by May 9 at the latest, is shaping up to be a referendum on US military policy towards the Korean Peninsula.

Popular anger against Park and her ruling party – which has seen millions of protesters holding candlelit vigils in the South Korean capital Seoul for months – is partly based on perceived corruption between the rightwing rulers and big companies like Samsung, Hyundai and other industrial conglomerates, known as Chaebols. But the popular anger is also bound up with what is perceived as a reckless subordination of Korean sovereignty to US foreign policy – a subordination that is viewed as not serving the interests of ordinary Korean citizens.

Since last year, Washington has been pushing ahead with the installation of its THAAD missile system in South Korea. Park and her conservative government have been all too willing to accommodate the American plans. However, public opposition to THAAD has grown in line with widespread disdain for the government’s policies of pandering to big business.

Washington and its South Korean allies argue that the THAAD is aimed at defending from the alleged threat of North Korea. Admittedly, the communist North Korean government of Kim Jung-un has carried out a series of nuclear and ballistic missile tests which have unnerved the region, especially American allies South Korea and Japan. Last week, Pyongyang test fired four ballistic missiles, three of which landed about 200 kilometers off Japan’s west coast.

The vicious cycle of Korean tensions is a complicated conundrum, fraught with unresolved historical grievances. North Korea argues that since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), the US and its Southern ally have effectively retained the threat of reigniting the war – a war which saw millions of Koreans killed in American saturation bombing. The conflict was never definitively ended with an armistice in 1953, and the US and its South Korean client regimes have for decades been carrying out annual war exercises in the region, which North Korea says are a veiled threat of eventual invasion.

China, an historic ally of North Korea, last week deplored the surge in latest tensions. Both Beijing and Moscow have long voiced opposition to deployment of the American THAAD missiles. With fair reason, China and Russia point out that the missile system destabilizes the strategic balance of forces in the region because the American batteries can target their territories as well as North Korea. The American move is therefore arguably fueling a new arms race, as Moscow warned this week.

Notably, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi likened the renewed military tensions to a collision course between two oncoming trains. Beijing then made the reasonable proposal for North Korea to halt all weapons testing in return for the US and South Korea ending their annual military exercises. Both Washington and its allies in Seoul promptly rejected the Chinese proposal.

Washington has since said that it is pushing on with its plans to instal the THAAD – components of which began arriving in South Korea this week – regardless of the impeachment scandal dogging former President Park and her ruling party.

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said at the weekend: «Leaders change over time, that’s not new».

But such a high-handed attitude from Washington is likely to embolden Korean opposition even more. At question here is Korean sovereignty and who runs the country? Is it Korean citizens, or Americans behaving like overlords with Korean vassals in tow?

An increasing majority of Korean citizens see that the cycle of tensions on the peninsula are in large part deliberately promulgated by US foreign policy. Koreans, like many Japanese as well, view the American long-held military presence in their countries as a form of neocolonialism that defies the popular democratic will, as well as jeopardizing their security. While Washington claims it is offering «protection», many ordinary citizens instead see the policy as nothing more than a «protection racket», whereby the US deliberately stokes conflict, and thereby gives itself a political justification for maintaining inordinate military forces in the region.

The recurring tensions in the Korean Peninsula represent, for many people of the region, an unacceptable risk of eventual catastrophic war.

China has responded furiously to the American missiles with economic sanctions newly imposed on South Korea. China is South Korea’s biggest market, with some quarter of its exports going there. Major South Korean firms like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and Lotte, are dependent on China’s vast consumer market. They, in turn, are the backbone of the South Korean economy. So, the economic pain will be severe for South Korean citizens if relations with China deteriorate further. And that is another crucial factor in why South Koreans are irate at Washington and its Korean acolytes stirring up tensions in the region. Livelihoods are already being destroyed, even if a full-on war does not explode.

The bizarre scandal of disgraced former President Park Geun-hye – involving millions of dollars in bribes from the Chaebols being pocketed by her cult-like friends – comes at an opportune time. The election of leftwing leader Moon Jae-in would throw a popular spanner in the works against the US-led arms race in the region.

The return of a Sunshine Policy involving dialogue and demilitarization would be a welcome break-out from the gloomy cycle of tensions and the ineluctable slide to war. Such an alternative outcome would be beneficial not just for North and South Korea, but for the wider region as a whole, including China, Japan and Russia.

Why the Sunshine Policy fell out of favor in the past was largely due to Washington’s policy of aggression towards North Korea. Between 1998-2008, the policy was the signature of the leftwing Democrat governments. Current opposition leader Moon Jae-in was a leading – albeit much younger – figure back then. The policy produced an historic meeting in 2000 between North and South Korean leaders and a promise for peaceful reunification of the two states.

However, following the 9/11 terror attacks in New York in 2001, the Bush administration declared North Korea to be part of a global «axis of evil». That ramped-up belligerence from Washington had the toxic effect of throwing the nascent cordial relations between Pyongyang and Seoul into disarray. The pro-US conservative party took over in 2008 and has ruled ever since, typically espousing a markedly hostile line towards North Korea.

Nevertheless, Korea’s political horizon appears now to be shifting, with the re-emergence of the progressive leftwing led by Moon Jae-in and the possible revival of the Sunshine Policy for regional dialogue.

There is a palpable sense here that Koreans, like the rest of the world, have gained a new critical consciousness that is propitious for a positive political direction. That new political awareness among Koreans, as with other nations around the world, now sees Washington as not the putative source of stability and protection that it claims to be. But rather as the exact opposite – a self-serving, exploitative force that only knows how to stoke tensions and wars.

Tags: South Korea